Boris Johnson’s premiership is increasingly looking like a sequel to Being There, the 1979 Peter Sellers film about a simpleminded fool who rises to become a trusted adviser to the US president and eventually finds himself on the verge of occupying The White House. The prime minister’s statement in parliament yesterday made him seem as distant and empty headed as the guileless Chauncey Gardiner.
Johnson is the leader of the world’s fifth biggest economy, yet we are asked to believe that he cannot tell the difference between a drinks party and a business meeting, even after spending 25 minutes speaking to the 30 people in it. His lack of interest in what the assembled staff were doing in his garden, or why or even what he was thanking them for, never occurred to him apparently. I mean, didn’t he think to, you know, like, ask? Weren’t the bottles, drinks, snacks and picnic tables a bit of a give away? Apparently not.
Investigation into Downing Street lockdown parties
To try and figure it all out, a senior civil servant is now carrying out an investigation to advise the elected prime minister exactly what kind of meeting it was that he and his wife stumbled across in his own house at 6 pm on 20 May 2020.
Of course, we already know that Johnson is not the sharpest knife in a cabinet full of extremely blunt instruments, but even he is not that stupid. Also, he is about as far from guileless as you can get, so this simply cannot be true. It’s just the inevitable consequence of being a habitual liar.
The problem with telling a fib, as many defendants have realised over the years, is that a second fib soon becomes necessary to cover discrepancies in the first one. And then another to cover stuff that doesn’t fit the second. Each time, the circumstances become harder and harder to reconcile with the truth without someone’s behaviour looking totally detached from reality.
This is why reports like Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle explanation, Lord Geidt’s effort, and the forthcoming one from Sue Gray, take so long to draft and look totally contrived, even ridiculous. They have to appear plausible and logical to explain the known and damning facts without putting blame on the person plainly at fault. This is not always easy. Let’s face it, these investigations have only one real purpose and that is to shut down questions beforehand (wait for the facts to be established) and afterwards provide a shield to deflect any further questions (X has set out the facts and found I did not deliberately break any rules, I have nothing more to add).
This morning we learn a member of the Johnson household has tested positive for covid and the prime minster is isolating. This means he may not face questions from journalists until Gray’s report is published to offer him more permanent protection.
When the smirking had to stop
The ‘work meeting’ excuse was almost certainly the result of many hours discussion, since we know he didn’t use it on Monday when he was first asked about the party and offered instead his knowing trademark smirk as he advised reporters to wait for a “proper” investigation. By Wednesday he had lost the smirk (imagine the hours in front of the mirror on that one) and gained a half credible excuse.
This excuse has the advantage of being almost believable albeit at the cost of making the PM look like an idiot, and could even form the basis of Gray absolving him.
One of Johnson’s appealing traits throughout his life is the capacity to laugh at himself, not to mind looking stupid or have people ridicule him. It’s got him out of a lot of awkward situations. But after yesterday, and with Lord Geidt having to tell the world recently that the PM seemed to be the only person in Downing Street who didn’t realise the flat refurbishment money was coming out of the back pocket of the multi-millionaire Lord Brownlow, to whom it was small change, he is now beginning to just look a bit slow on the uptake.
His political rivals are sensing an opportunity with Rishi Sunak tweeting his ‘support’ for the prime minister eight hours after Johnson’s statement in the House but with a reminder to his supporters that he was actually doing something useful:
The Johnsons clearly thought at the end of 2019 they were destined for a long period in No 10 and spent £112,000 on refurbishments including wallpaper at £840 per roll. Now it looks like their tenure will be cut short.